The Independent London Newspaper
26th April 2019

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: Terry and June, Margaret and Denis, and a history of the BBC

    Margaret Thatcher constantly tried to interfere with the running of the BBC

    Margaret Thatcher constantly tried to interfere with the running of the BBC

    Published: 3 April, 2015

    SIR Denis Thatcher, according to his daughter Carol, would sit in the Number 10 flat watching rugby union football, muttering “pinkoes and traitors”. 

    This is how he characterised the BBC, and his nasty, spiteful, spitting, prejudice was shared by his frightening wife. This, and many other rich observations, are seen in Pinkoes and Traitors by Jean Seaton, a history of the BBC between 1974 and 1987. 

    Seaton is a professor of media history at the University of Westminster. 

    As she says, this is a history, not the history of the BBC.

    Margaret Thatcher is often described as “incandescent”. She tried constantly to interfere with the running of the corporation. Once, she even asked Rupert Murdoch for his view of her proposal for a new chairman of the BBC governors.  

    She stamped her way on everything, even when right-wing Tories thought she was going too far. When her war, the Falklands, boosted her flagging votes, she became incandescent yet again and practically exploded when a woman teacher, Diana Gould, called her bluff on the unnecessary the sinking of the Argentinian warship, the Belgrano. After the programme she went ballistic at being called out by a mere geography teacher. She thought she was immune from such criticism. Oddly enough, her deputy William Whitelaw deflected some of her more extreme views.

    The IRA bomb attacks on Britain in the 1970s caused her to lead the call for vengeance. She saw herself as Vera Lynn, the wartime sweetheart of the forces. Michael Foot was shouted down in the Commons trying to defend the impartiality of the BBC, but nothing would contain her. 

    She began to see herself as Boudicca, ordering the BBC to obey. Then a new director general arrived between 1982 and 1987, Alasdair Milne. It drove her to distraction when he gave the green light to programmes on Northern Ireland and the right-wing militant tendency in the Tory ranks. He was the first to call her to order, and she never forgave.  

    I enjoyed the revelations about the sexual antics of leading players in the higher reaches of the corporation. Huw Wheldon, the begetter of superb artistic programmes like Arena and even Malcolm Muggeridge, a pious new Christian, were alleged gropers. BBC chairman George Howard once submitted in his expenses the cost of a prostitute to keep him happy on the Orient Express. His sexual appetites and corporate expenditure were legion. 

    On the other hand, the programme-makers were breaking records. Morecambe and Wise pulled in 24 million on Christmas Day. David Attenborough was the magician who almost single-handedly brought nature programmes to prominence. They still excel in bird, beast and reptile. All of this was against a background of backstabbing, promiscuity and appalling prejudice against women. Many of the males in higher places were quite open about their contempt for women and equal opportunities. 

    Dramatic events led to the removal of Alasdair Milne as DG, as Thatcher screamed about disloyalty, even treachery. Meanwhile, the threat from the new ITV rose above Portland Place and threatened its monopoly. Granada’s Coronation Street hoovered up millions of viewers. That challenge was answered by Michael Grade, the BBC 1 controller, with EastEnders

    In this political climate, personal security checks led to people being labelled. Anyone on the left became a subversive with a direct line to Moscow. It was bizarre. If you were a suspect they stamped a Christmas tree on your papers. Yet much of the BBC’s output was witty and deadly. Yes Minister was very well received, but was pulled because Terry Scott and June Whitfield’s comedy was bringing in larger numbers of viewers. Fawlty Towers, a work of comic genius, only ran for 12 programmes. 

    Thatcher, in the midst of her prime minister’s turbulent daily routine, went to the BBC board of management and took it upon herself to attack When the Boat Comes In, a graphic story of life in the north east of England during the 1930s Depression. She said: “It is a typical example of political bias and heart-string pulling masquerading as art.” I shall spare you from the vituperative comments of Norman Tebbit, who can be roused into a frenzy about the BBC.

    This is a good history of one of our national institutions, which none of us have any control over.

    Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the nation 1974-1987 by Jean Seaton is published by Profile Books at £30.